Völva, Iron Age seeress and her magic wand

posted in: archaeology 0

(Original article 5/10/2017)

As Samhain, Halloween and their Finnish counterpart Kekri are near it is a good moment to get inspired by seeresses, witches and shamans. The seers who could connect to the other worlds and see the future and the past. The North has been full of these sorcerers and seers before Christianity arrived and even after it but with a lower profile.

The Stone Age rock paintings in Finland depict shamans and their assisting animals. The Sámi "noaid", shamans have been practising divination with their drums long even after the Christianization. But also the old Scandinavian culture had their own witches and seeresses. The Western and South-Western Finland had close contacts with this culture.

Völva - the seeress in Iron Age Scandinavia

In the Sagas, seeresses called völur (plural) have been described. The word völva (singular) means a carrier of the wand. Usually, a völva was an older woman who travelled around helping people with her magical skills.

Odin and a seeress
Odin and his horse meet with a seeress
For instance, the Saga of Erik the Red tells about the calling the seeress to help in the dearth of fish.

Völva is described to be dressed in a blue long outfit and carrying a decorated iron staff and a pouch of tools. On her head, she wore lambskin lined with fur (ermine or cat).

They arrange a seat for the seeress and a special meal consisting among other things of hearts of animals. Young women surround the seeress and sing which helps the völva to enter into the trance. In the trance, the sorcerer finds the answers to the questions that are asked by the people.

The trance session resembles so much shaman rituals of the Sàmi people that the völur has been called the shaman of the ancient Scandinavian culture.

There was in the settlement the woman whose name was Thorbjorg. She was a prophetess (spae-queen), and was called Litilvolva (little sybil). [...] It was a custom of Thorbjorg, in the winter time, to make a circuit, and people invited her to their houses, especially those who had any curiosity about the season, or desired to know their fate. [...]

The women formed a ring round about, and Thorbjorg ascended the scaffold and the seat prepared for her enchantments. Then sang Gudrid the weird-song in so beautiful and excellent a manner, that to no one there did it seem that he had ever before heard the song in voice so beautiful as now.

The wands of Völva, the seeress

The seeresses in the Sagas are carrying a wand with them. Several dozens of taffs with a gage or basket-like construction on the other end have been found in Scandinavia.

The staff resembles a lot a distaff used in weaving. It also has a basket-like construction in the end. It's been thought that these wands may have something to do with weaving: the Norns, female mythological characters controlled the fates of people by spinning. Völva might have been able to control battles and even warfare by weaving.

Burials with völva's wands

The majority of the völva's staffs have been found in the graves of women, a small proportion is from male graves and some of them are from the settlements. Often these graves contain also narcotics, amulets and for example parts of birds. The burials are richly furnished so these women have been valued and in a high position in society.

Below, I gathered three burials to deal with more in detail: Köpingsvik in Öland, Sweden, Fyrkat in Denmark and Isokyrö in Finland.

Köpingsvik, Öland

The objects of this grave found in Köpingsvik, Öland, Sweden are displayed at the historical museum in Stockholm. A woman was cremated and buried in a boat, wrapped in or on a bearskin.

She had been given a staff longer than 80 cm and made of iron. The wand was decorated with bronze parts with a miniature house on the top. Objects possibly connected with sorcery are two plates with runic characters. The writing wasn't readable.

Völva's wand of Köpingsvik grave
The wand of the Völva, the seeress, in the grave of a woman in Köpingsvik
The grave was supplied with exquisite beads, jewellery set and exotic imported objects from Middle Asia like a bronze dish and a jug. Animals were offered for the dead and the grave included also bones of another individual may be from a human sacrifice.

Grave objects
Other objects of the grave
Fyrkat

The third grave is from Fyrkat, Denmark, from a circular fortress dated to the end of the 10th century. These kinds of fortifications seem to have had a function of an army camp, production and administration centre.

The richest grave of the fortress cemetery belonged to a woman (probably according to the objects of the grave) who had been given also a wand with a gage-like end. The person about 170 cm tall had been buried in a wagon. She had items originating from different areas like Gotland, Finland and Russia.

Among the objects, there were parts of animals, henbane (a hallucinogen) and a pendant representing a chair. The chair can symbolize the seat where the völva can see to the other dimensions from.

Seat and valkyrie pendants
Copy of a silver seat shape pendant and a pendant depicting a female from Sweden
A box brooch contained white lead used as ointment or make-up (or a sealant to make the box waterproof). The woman was wearing a blue dress like the völva in the Saga of Erik the Red, and a veil decorated with gold.

Pukkila, Isokyrö

In Isokyrö, Finland, already in 1920, a level-ground cremation cemetery with a boat burial was excavated. The cremated bones of the boat burial were placed inside of a shield boss.

Boat burial of Isokyrö, Pukkila
Boat burial of Pukkila, Isokyrö, Finland, Das Brandgräberfeld von Pukkila in Isokyrö, Alfred Hackman 1938
According to the osteological analysis, there were bones from three persons one of which was less than 16 years, the second a young adult (10-24 years) and the third an adult (18-44 years). It wasn't possible to determine the gender of the deceased.

The objects of the grave included a sword with animal ornamentation and parts of another sword, parts of a sword sheath also decorated with animal figures, pieces of a helmet, shield, axe, arrows, horse equipment and fragments of a drinking horn.

A broken wand made of iron had been thought to be a skewer or something like that. However, it looks quite similar to the völva wands found in Scandinavia. There was also a rattle to banish the evil spirits. These have also been interpreted as a part of a whip.

Objects of the grave
Objects of the grave
Animals were probably offered too. There were bones of a domestic dog and other canine and a goat or sheep. Maybe some of the human bones originated from a sacrifice too like assumed in the case of Öland burial.

The staff from Isokyrö may have belonged to a man as well but at least in Scandinavia, the magic was more a matter of women. Men who practised magic were considered weird and they weren't valued like the women practitioners.  In ancient religions the supernatural was present everywhere and a part of the everyday life. Also, ordinary people practised magic and performed ritual acts. However, there were respected persons specialized in magic and divination like the völvur.

Belief and Ritual, Vikings - life and legend, Neil Price, Peter Pentz 2014

Rautakausi, Muinaisuutemme jäljet, Sami Raninen, Anna Wessman, 2015

Völva, Wikipedia

Das Brandgräberfeld von Pukkila in Isokyrö, Alfred Hackman 1938

Völva wand necklaces
Necklaces inspired by the völva wands
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